Successful executive coaching engagements are important to all parties – the executive, his or her company and the coach. I’ve been reflecting upon hundreds of executive coaching experiences with leaders and can discern the optimal conditions for coaching success as well as the roadblocks that hamper coaching results. As a former human resources and organization development leader, I was often the decision maker about what executive development investments to make and when to make them. Executive coaching is often requested for one leader or group of leaders to support talent management and leadership development strategies. These requests may support executives in times of transition, role changes or when broadening span of leadership.
My favorite engagements support development during executive transitions, for internal CEO succession or a new executive who is new to the company. Both transitions require integration support, that is developmental for the leader, to be able to shift into a new way of working with a new team and within a foreign culture. The integration or assimilation for new CEO’s or executives can take months, and with pressure for early successes to gain credibility, executive coaching is the perfect enabler on this journey. Coaching for up and coming leaders on a succession plan, ensuring readiness for promotion are ideal business cases for coaching.
Sometimes a leader asks for executive coaching because they’re struggling with certain team members or are not working as they desire with peers or a manager, and coaching can support a leader to connect more effectively with others. In larger corporations, leaders may be part of a high-potential program and executive coaching sessions have been promised through that program. Although, these are good business reasons to invest in executive coaching, there are other factors to consider.
The optimal conditions for success will result in clear results for the leader, the ability of the organization to measure those results and an effective engagement by the executive coach. When three optimal conditions are not met, a coach should walk away from the engagement, suggest that the timing may not be right for coaching or consider negotiating the conditions for success before starting work.
The first two conditions are external forces to the leader, including the organization and the leader’s manager, that elevate accountability for the growth of the leader. The first condition aligns with a strong business case for coaching, mentioned earlier, such as right timing and a sense of urgency by the company, the manager and the leader. The timing of development investments can answer the question, why now, and not some other time in the future? Does the organization have a solid plan for succession or talent management activities to support the investment for coaching? The timing is right if an executive requires development to be ready for an upcoming senior role in the future (12-24 months is optimal timing), or if the executive has just gone through a significant transition to a new role and should have had integration coaching support earlier. It’s not too late to invest in executive coaching within the first year of a major transition, especially if the company or the leader’s manager becomes aware of gaps they did not see until the leader occupied the new role.
Right timing and a sense of urgency can be about the capability gap required to be successful in the new role, with a high chance that if the gap were not addressed, would have a significant adverse effect on the new executive, his or her team and the broader organization. Adults tend to learn when the need or the pain experienced by a development gap is greatest, and as such, the leader’s manager must agree to the importance of closing the development gap. This second condition, the manager’s role to build accountability, includes aligning with the coaching development goals established within the first two meetings. In supporting the development process, the manager provides consistent and clear feedback about progress in the agreed timeframe. The right mix of accountability, compassion and support by the manager or sponsor are essential to leadership growth.
The third and final condition for optimal executive coaching success is the willingness of the executive to change and to focus on this effort over several months. A leader must see him or herself at the center of the change effort or central to the success of the coaching development engagement. This condition has more to do with internal forces at work within the leader such as motivation, openness, humility and self-awareness. I’ve worked with executives that say they want to be coached and are ready to engage in the development process. It’s important, however, to dig a little further into why development coaching, what problem or opportunity is the leader wanting to address through a coaching process and what does the leader expect of an executive coach? I’ve had the experience that some executives will say the right things about why they want development coaching. Even so, the executive coach may want to keep his or her eyes open for potential signals that this leader may be saying the right things but cannot back them up with aligned actions.
The pseudo-ready executive may be looking for a quick fix to his or her development gaps and brings an expectation that the executive coach is going to tell them what to do differently. This can come in the form of statements about not being comfortable with a coaching approach that just asks a lot of questions and expects the leader to figure things out by him or herself. The executive may be looking for processes, tactics or tips for success that require minimal effort, and as such, is essentially asking the coach to be an advisor or consultant, instead of a coach. The most skilled executive coaches will guide executives to find the answers that are right for him or her, that once learned and applied, are repeatable and integrated by the leader in the future.
Other signs that a leader is not ready for executive coaching are patterns of cancelling coaching sessions at the last minute, appearing to be consistently distracted, and/or not completing assignments between coaching sessions with the repeated reason that there just wasn’t enough time. Sometimes the too busy or unfocused executive is being coached for this very reason. In this case, the leader’s constant fire drill behavior or lack of focus show up within the coaching engagement and can provide in-the-moment awareness opportunities. Using the context of the coaching engagement to highlight these issues may or may not results in a change. Regardless, this becomes an ideal moment for the coach to address readiness and willingness of the leader to be engaged in his or her development. This condition not being met, may require intervention from the manager or organization to highlight the importance of making changes with some stated repercussions if the leader doesn’t change.
Another subtle form of resistance to coaching is the executive that insists on blaming others or the company culture for his or her challenges. This executive believes that if the people or circumstances were different, the leader wouldn’t have a problem. If the leader is open to seeing how this frame of reference about others versus oneself is one of the main development opportunities, a coach may be able to make progress. If this condition persists, it’s worth everyone’s time to perhaps cancel the engagement or ask for support from the manager to shift the internal forces within the leader.
As an executive coach, it's important to pay attention to the potential for optimal conditions to be met. The objective conditions of right timing, a sense of urgency and willingness to change are reasonable criteria for leadership growth. I’m in awe of the many executives that bring a genuine sense of curiosity, deep courage, true humility and self-compassion to the development process. If the optimal conditions for executive coaching success are in place, and they often are, or could be, the coaching is beneficial and worth the investment for everyone involved.
As an executive coach, I work with new CEO's to support the transition process to the chief executive role. Transitions can be challenging for everyone at every level and for CEO's the stakes for succession integration are high. Well navigated transitions require a willingness to learn, an openness to new perspectives, an ability to suspend assumptions, ask open-ended questions and demonstrate a learner’s sense of curiosity. Many companies I’ve worked with are intentional about at least on-boarding new CEO's and some go further by integrating them into the new organization.
How well the CEO assimilates is a very public process. A newly hired CEO from outside the company, although she or he may have been a CEO previously, has many things to learn about the new company, including its competitive advantage, business strategies, operational processes, senior leadership team, board members, key stakeholder relationships and many cultural nuances. The new externally hired CEO may be somewhat aware that there are many unknowns within the new company and that first impressions may easily be misinterpreted. Previous experiences can bias the chief executive’s perspectives. A hyper-awareness about the need to learn, observe, reflect and ask questions, while starting to get results, is essential to ensure success. It is truly a developmental process, no matter where a successor has worked previously.
As CEO integration is such a tricky business to do well, one would think that internal CEO transitions would be easier than external ones. For one reason, internal successors already know a lot about the business environment, the many challenges ahead, its key stakeholders, the people and the unique variables of the company culture. However, some recent studies have shown that regardless of succession from outside or inside the company, about 68% of new CEO's report they were not prepared well enough to assume the new role. Chief executives site challenges such as understanding the nuances of the company culture and working adeptly within it, assessing and developing the new senior leadership and managing their expectations of success as some of the toughest challenges. With a bias towards action, many CEO's say there was not enough time (or they didn’t take it) to reflect, interpret and understand what was happening in the first year to adapt, change course, explicitly learn or try something new.
Some of the hardest transitions can be from successors inside the company. New internal incumbents are highly unlikely to see the need to re-frame or change previously held perspectives. He or she may not think to fully evaluate work priorities, refocus his or her time on the strategies that only the CEO can handle, or renegotiate relationships with previous peers who are now direct reports. With a drive to go quickly and with the same impact as in past roles, new CEO's from within the company walls, must in some ways abandon previous ways of working that they were rewarded and known for. In essence, they must assume they’ve arrived in a strange new world as an external candidate might do. The nature of the transition as a developmental process may seem farthest from this new CEO's awareness.
Jill, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is the new CEO of a non-profit organization. She’s been in her new role for a couple of months after assuming the reigns from a long-standing founder and charismatic former CEO. With almost two decades within the non-profit organization herself, Jill brings a lot of upside in being able to understand key partners, stakeholders, programs and the political ecosystem in which she will operate. Even so, Jill has astutely asked for additional help from an executive coach, external advisers and board members to make this important transition.
In the handful of weeks Jill has been in her new role, she’s been surprised by the complexity and highly charged nature of some of the big decisions she now owns. One of the toughest aspects of her role is being seen as the chief executive to employees who know her well. She has opened her doors for office hours so employees know she is available to listen to what might be on their hearts and minds. She’s wisely listening to her new advisors' to help balance or modify previous perspectives, check her assumptions, and test what she might already know, or thought she knew. One of the hardest early decisions Jill made was to let a newer member of the senior leadership team go, as that leader was unable to provide the operational leadership required in a critical area. If Jill had delayed this decision, she would spend an inordinate amount of her valuable time digging into internal operational issues.
In making this decision quickly and thoughtfully, Jill has been able to turn her attention to vital external priorities such as long term strategic planning, fostering new board relationships, building credibility with board members, engaging with community leaders and directing annual fund-raising efforts to lay the foundations for financial and program success in the coming years. Jill is mastering one of the biggest challenges for an internal successor, that is to manage a group of leaders who were previously her peers. This work with her leadership team will be a central focus area in the coming year, as Jill sees one of her top priorities as building leadership capacity.
Balancing positivity with risk mitigation and learning is the first real job of this CEO successor. In our work, we’re using the wisdom of emotional intelligence to create greater awareness about Jill’s default reactions and relationship management modes, so she can experiment with more effective leadership behaviors required of someone in her position. She knows it will be hard going, for the first year at least, and perhaps for the first three years as a new CEO. There’s a growing awareness within her, that knowing what she already knows about the company and its people, could be as asset or a liability as an internal successor.
I’m grateful that I made the radical move to jump out into the unknown as the lessons I had to learn about resilience, creative energy and vitality are similar to what many executives struggle with in our volatile, unpredictable, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) work world.